Afternoon Yak: Week 2 – Non-Binary Gender in YA

AfternoonYakHello! And welcome to a new feature here on BOANW, where Ashleigh and I talk about various things we’ve found whilst reading books that we need to get out of our system. Or stuff we want to talk about in terms of books in general. Yes, image is stolen from that Simpsons episode where Homer watches the Estrogen Network. Warning, there will be gifs, and sometimes potty mouthing. But we’ll try to keep it civil as best we can.

This week’s topic: Gender in YA – is genderqueering/genderfluidity/asexuality the last great frontiers to be explored within the genre?


Usagi: So, I don’t know if anyone aside from me (and Ashleigh) has been paying attention, but there’s been a sudden (and very welcome) influx on books having to do with gender, genderfluidity and genderqueering going on within YA within the year or so alone. Before, the only real book you could find on the subject that did it justice was “Luna” by Julie Anne Peters. Which was published years ago. Like 10 years ago? But now, suddenly, we find ourselves getting used to the idea of gay in our YA, which is a very welcome thing indeed – and now we’re going to the next frontier: gender, and how it works. At least, that’s how I see it.

So, what is genderqueering, genderfluidity, and all that nonsense, you ask?

For those who don’t know what genderqueering is, let’s consult our good friend, Mr. Wikipedia.

Genderqueering/genderfluidity/etc is defined as:

Genderqueer (GQ; alternatively non-binary) is a catch-all category for gender identities other than man and woman, thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.[1] People who identify as genderqueer may think of themselves as one or more of the following:

  • having an overlap of, or blurred lines between, gender identity and sexual and romantic orientation.[2][3]
  • both man and woman (bigender, trigender, pangender);
  • neither man nor woman (nongendered, genderless, agender);
  • moving between genders (genderfluid);[4]
  • third gender or other-gendered; includes those who do not place a name to their gender;[5]

I’d also add asexuality (third gender) to this list, just to make it clear, but as this subject is really, really tender with a lot of people (myself included), I won’t put a blanket it on it. Ashleigh, care to share your thoughts?

Ashleigh: I’ve had a hard time finding any books with any deeper exploration of gender, genderqueering, genderfluidity, etc. The few books I know about that cover it were recs straight from Usagi herself. She has genderqueering/genderfluidity covered, but I can toss my hat into the ring for asexuality.

People will express/experience it differently, but it usually boils down to the same thing: a lack of sexual attraction to other people. It’s not a choice anymore than being straight or gay or bi is a choice. It simply is like any other sexual identity. It often gets confused with celibacy, but they’re two different things. Confuse or conflate them when talking to an asexual person and they might want to do this to you:

There are also heteroromantic, biromantic, homoromantic, or panromantic asexuals, who experience romantic attraction to the opposite sex, both sexes, the same sex, or anyone regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum, respectively. However, they still don’t experience sexual attraction. Everyone has emotional needs, after all. Some asexual people still feel romantic love, but others don’t. Like I said, people experience it differently.

Books about asexual characters? I knew of only one before I did a little digging for the chat. Consult this wiki page for a few examples. It informed me Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead has an asexual character and I did not know that, meaning it goes on my to-read pile right now. There’s also Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson, where the narrator Tori is asexual and the only one I knew of before now. I’ve seen reviews of both novels around, but very few people have read either.

Usagi: It’s incredibly hard to find non-binary gender diversity in YA, but I think we’re slowly inching our way there. I mentioned in the previous edition of Afternoon Yak books like “Every Day” (and it’s soon-to-be-published followup which is definitely my MOST anticipated fall season release, “Two Boys Kissing”) and “Pantomime”, which are giving me hope for a wider berth in terms of safe space to talk about non-binary gender, and what a big issue it is. We also have “Freakboy” to look forward to for the fall season – so that’s two more books (including “Two Boys Kissing”) to add to the non-binary gender canon for YA. Making it a grand total of five that I can think of (when we include “Luna”). So it’s a start, especially since we’re finally letting our gay YA take baby steps (which, at this point, should be really big steps as gay YA has matured enough to where we can put it in places without bullying and such) out of the contemporary-only arena. But really, at this point, we should be further along. It really bothers me that I have to break down my own sexuality/identity to others, period, but when I have to do so, I have to explain at least twice how things work. And that’s just with me – that’s not even with the very divided genderqueer community.

Let me catch my breath a second.

Okay. There we go.

I was lucky enough to get a copy of the recent grand rounds done by the director of the Transgender Youth Harm Reduction Program at Children’s Hospital LA, which goes into depth how serious the problem of ignoring non-gender binary in young adults is. Some of the statistics are downright depressing when it comes to how many of those of the community engage in dangerous self-harm activities both traditional (cutting, eating disorders) and non-traditional (substance abuse) because they literally have nowhere to put those feelings, or no one to talk to in a safe space about trying to figure themselves out.  Let’s look at those statistics:

According to a recent Transyouth Study in terms of Victimization:

30% – had to drop out of school

50% – had trouble getting a job

30% – got spat on (as in actually spat on by OTHER PEOPLE)

89% – verbally harassed (not a surprise, but still)

50% – threatened with physical violence

50% – domestic partner violence (in later onset patients)

*source: “All Mixed-Up: Gender Variant Youth” Grand Rounds by Marvin Belzer MD FSAM FACP, May 1, 2013

Add to that, there’s several diagnoses (hereafter referred to as “dxs”) for gender dysphoria/identity disorders in the medical community: there’s GID (gender identity disorder), GDS (gender dysphoria disorder), Gender Incongruency, born physically Intersex (with both sets of bits),  and so forth. We’re not even talking about asexuality here – which I’d love to see the statistics for, btw. While I haven’t been officially diagnosed with either GID or GDS, I do fit the criteria for the latter, as I have no wish to change the plumming and I have severe issues with my own gender. Also known as genderfluidity. There’s early, mid, and late onset – I’m considered mid-to-late onset since I really didn’t start feeling the incongruency mentally with my own gender until I was a mid-teenager. It’s kind of been there ever since. While there’s still a lot of research being done, and research that desperately, desperately needs to be done, we also need to have a non-medical dialogue within larger society as a whole.

If those numbers don’t bring home how much we need to talk about non-binary gender within pop culture and YA lit, these numbers surely should:

Transgender Risks (via National Transgender Discrimination Study):


– Loss of Job 26%

– Mistreated at work 97%

– Make less than 10,000 USD/year

– In AA 15%

– Latino as an ethnic group 28% (only 7% of which shows up in the US Census)

– Housing instability 26%

– Employer-based insurance 40% (general population is 62% insured by their employer)

*source: “All Mixed-Up: Gender Variant Youth” Grand Rounds by Marvin Belzer MD FSAM FACP, May 1, 2013

I honestly just have no words for those numbers. And it’s only getting worse.

Ashleigh: Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. I did not know about those statistics.

There are far fewer studies done of asexuality because it’s so little-known and most of the time, it shows up in studies about sexuality when an asexual person ends up in the sample by chance. This is why I can’t offer any sobering statistics about what we go through.

I’ve identified as asexual since I was sixteen. I had many, many intense crushes before then, but as I got older, I stopped having them and stopped being attracted to other people. A lot of what motivated my crushes was pressure. Pressure from the media, pressure from my peers,… When your friends ask you which celebrity you’re crushing on and you want to feel like you’re part of the group, it’s hard to say “None of them because I don’t find any of them attractive.”

I also endured some sexual abuse a few years before my realization, but I will find you if you even think this had anything to do with my eventual realization that I’m asexual. That’s a VERY offensive claim to make. Not all asexual people experience sexual abuse and even if they did experience sexual abuse the way I did, they may have already been asexual or only figured it out post-abuse. The psychiatrist I saw while at college implied he thought my sexuality was a result of the abuse and I very nearly quit seeing him after that. I sure won’t be his patient again in the future now that I’m done seeing him.

I’ve never experienced any problems directly related to my identity as an asexual woman, which is something a transgender woman probably couldn’t say. No, problems for asexual women tend to have to do with other factors. Like when people tell me I’ll “find the right man” (funny how I never hear “find the right woman” or “find the right person”), that’s not a problem I face as an asexual. It’s misogyny, a problem I face as a woman. A lower-class, Asian, and able-bodied asexual man will face different problems than I do due to those factors, as will an upper-class, white, and disabled asexual woman.

Sex, gender, race, class, ability, and other such cultural categories become lurking variables when matched with asexuality. You know each factor contributes to how an asexual person is treated by their peers, but there’s no way to keep former from interacting with the latter, so you have to take them together or not take them at all.

To get back to the point of where all this is in YA, it’s not really there. Asexuality in YA is like asexuality in studies: you often can’t tell when it’s there and when it is, it’s a fluke. Except for when authors specifically write asexual characters and be awesome that way. I have little to no representation in YA when it comes to my asexuality, but I’m okay with that. If I had to choose, I’d choose more positive female representation because being a woman influences how people treat me more than being asexual does. Changing how people see me through the lens of the former will change how I’m treated through the lens of the latter due to those lurking variables.

There needs to be a lot more research done on asexuality. It will be difficult to do so because many people still don’t identify as asexual, it can be difficult to separate the asexual from the sexually inexperienced or celibate whenever someone says they’re not having sex, and people tend to ask these stupid questions a lot.

Seriously, you have no idea how tiring those questions get. Can people just stop asking and be like “Okay! We can study you now and make it more known, please?” I’d like that. Then I won’t be like Grumpy Cat.


Usagi: Aww, Grumpy Cat! One of my favorite meme cats ever. ❤

When you put all of the statistics together and leaving out a rather large chunk of the community that needs to be studied, it’s generally troubling in terms of the direction we’re going in society. I mean, yay for the fact that I may one day get to marry someone if they’re the same gender – I’m not ungrateful for that. What does trouble me more is the huge reluctance to even talk about these issues out in the open. And you know what helps do that? Books. Specifically, YA books. They can get the conversation started. They can help parents and kids talk to each other. They can do so much, but there’s so little out there to actually help. We need more resources and books CAN be apart of those resources – if only pubs and authors weren’t so scared (at least, that’s the feeling I generally get when no one’s talking about an issue) to start talking about things.

Seriously, authors and pubs, it’s time to talk more about this next great (and final) frontier. Think of all of the people you could help. Even if you get your research wrong, it’s okay – because we know you’re at least trying to talk about the subject, and sometimes, that’s what counts the most.

So get going, authors. Let’s talk about this. Let’s save some lives, or at least make them better than they are now. Books can do so much more than most think they can, and this is one way you can help change the world. Dramatic? Maybe, but it’s also true.

That’s it for this edition of Afternoon Yak! We welcome discussion in the comments. Let us know how you feel about this particular edition!


4 thoughts on “Afternoon Yak: Week 2 – Non-Binary Gender in YA

  1. Pingback: The Grey of Gender: Intersex and Gender Variant/Non-Binary Characters in YA

  2. Bit late to reply, I only just found this blog, but I’m a little surprised you guys hadn’t come across Guardian of the Dead before since whenever I see someone asking for recommendations for books with asexual characters that’s usually one of the few books to come up. Unfortunately I do have one or two problems with it (just the asexual character part sadly, I adore the rest of the book and Healey’s writing in general) but it’s better than nothing I guess? And Quicksilver came out very recently, only back in January, so that’s probably why there’s been so little buzz there (haven’t read it myself but I have read the book it’s a companion to, Ultraviolet, so I’m really looking forward to it).

  3. Pingback: how do you know your gender is non-binary? | Queering the Church

  4. Pingback: The Grey of Gender: Intersex and Gender Variant/Non-Binary Characters in YA | Diversity in YA

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